It has to be one of the proudest institutions I’ve ever beheld. We’re a good hour into the presentation ceremony after a month long mountaineering course in Manali, India, and none of the 150 students have received their certificates. Up on the stage, one of the instructors is accepting his third award of the evening, blindingly illuminated by an amateur camera man’s cheap sungun. Some would consider hiring a wannabe media professional for a private triannual event overkill, but really – what would they know? The ceremony is of the utmost importance: why else would we give a standing ovation to a bunch of aging Indian instructors as they settle themselves in the front row? Why else would screeching traditional music blare from crackling speakers? Why else would the local MP dribble unintelligibly for 45 minutes as we sit waiting in the dank theatre? For the free meal? Because hyperbolic fanfare is fun? No – because this is an esteemed institute, a rite that must be noted. It may commonly be known as just India, but the past month, my India went by the title Atal Bihari Vajpayee* Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports, or in short, ABVIMAS.
At the Rickshaw Run launch party – which got totally out of hand – I drunkenly discussed with an Aussie couple their plans to partake in a mountaineering course. Tired of simply travelling between hostels and snapping pictures of impressive architecture I knew nothing of, I decided to join them.
Entering the registration hall the day before the course, it became apparent we were to be the only foreigners. Three out of some 150 students. We shook many a delighted hand, forgot nearly every name, paid four times as much as everyone else to register and left giddy with excitement for the month to come.
Manali is just lovely. Sure, Old Manali is a tad like Little Israel for the lovers of A-grade hash and opium, but its natural beauty is unquestionable. Nestled in the Western Indian Himalaya, it bears stunning views of snow-capped peaks and quaint hillside communities of thatched roofed homes, bordered by apple orchards and stone walls and paths from an age forgotten. Each morning, we’d rise before the sun, freezing, and jog through town amidst relentless dog barks and incessant cries of “chello” and “jaldi” (which both essentially mean “fast”), trying to stay in a painfully organised snaking line of physically unsound students. Eventually, as is the Indian way, order would falter, and those who could would leave their mismatched groupings behind. Some days I wished I was still abed, but whenever I was on the return leg, coasting downhill as others struggled up, I’d look up to see the sun catching the peaks of mammoth Himalayan mountains and the first rays of day hurling themselves to the valley below. It’s a phenomenal experience: your flesh is frozen, your heart is pounding and your soul soars.
The instructors attempted strict control, as climbing a mountain requires discipline; but ABVIMAS itself did not seem to follow suit. Scurrying students would be scolded for arriving seconds late to roll call, only to then stand patiently in line for 20 minutes as instructors quietly discussed their next course of action. I would simply arrive in my own due time, knowing that as an Australian I’d get away with it thanks to their blessed prejudice against their fellow Indian. Others would be doing push ups, where I’d only receive a shake of the head and an empty threat from Verma, an instructor who’d been driven mad by his time in the Indian Navy.
With wrap-around sports glasses and a tracksuit always zipped to the top, Verma was constantly at the heels of those lagging, demanding extra exercises from people he deemed not putting in enough effort. It was as though he was energised by their scorn, yet he’d taken us Australians under his wing. He’d happily flail his arm around my neck, look intently into my eyes and say, “Verma, bad man. You, good man.” He was mad, but he was on our side, so we loved his ruthlessness. There was hilarity to our immunity.
A brilliant example of ABVIMAS’ reasoning was when we had to pick a leader out of the 80 students enrolled in “Basic Course”. Instead of having prospective leaders share their outdoor and leadership skills with us, or waiting until the initial training period separated the most capable student from the pack, the instructors devised another method. A running race. Genius. Yep, to determine who was best suited to lead 80 novices through a month-long course involving rock and ice climbing, hard trekking, rope skills, snow craft, avalanche and other emergency training in remote mountains, they’d concluded a 300-metre foot race around the nearest building would do. Up went the hands and off they went as the rest of us waited in awed anticipation.
The victor, a guy in his early 20s, not only always ended up being middle of the pack, but had a lisp, a tremendous attribute for someone having to call the words “Basthic Courstth” 40 times a day. Throughout the month he was constantly in danger of being usurped by the bloke who came second, a determined man in his late 30s. He must’ve spoken with the instructors, for he was rewarded some fabricated position of authority just underneath the other guy. Regardless, we’d gotten our worthy leaders.
Luckily for me, there were other notable figures among us, one being some sort of Microsoft IT consultant named Morkul. Not only did this fully-grown dude bring aftershave and a man-bag to a mountaineering course, but he referred to them as his “perfumes” and his “purse”. After setting about trying to kill us Aussies with his madly deluded confidence behind the wheel of his sister’s hatchback, he then set about trying to kill himself. I once returned to the rock-climbing wall to find mighty Morkul hanging upsidedown from where he’d linked his karabiner to his leg strap and then missed a hold. He’d forgotten his helmet and smacked his head, and as punishment, Verma made him wear it wherever he went. But alas: in a landmark game of volleyball, Morkul succumbed to a season-ending ankle sprain. And so it was that his dopey yet genuine smile was wiped by the rigors of ABVIMAS.
But Morkul wasn’t the only one to pack his bag. A decent percentage of mountaineering hopefuls turned in the towel after six days of horrendous light exercise. I, however, went above and beyond, proving my dedication to ABVIMAS by enduring my first ever case of food poisoning on the morning of the hike to Base Camp, in which I was almost forced onto a packed local bus with a time-bomb for a sphincter. Once recovered, I was delighted at the prospect of erecting my tent and establishing camp for the coming fortnight. But as was so often the case, whenever we had to be self-reliant, Indian hospitality took over and everything would be done for us. This may seem brilliant, but we signed up for a month in the mountains to challenge ourselves – not be treated as halfwits by people with less idea than us. To top it off, the tent that was to house myself and Jack, the other Australian guy, was fluorescent pink.
We spent the weeks practising techniques with our ice axes and crampons on a face of hardened snow thousands of feet above our camp. Things like learning to ski hurriedly down the face using only the heels of your boots and the butt of your axe, or self-arrests, where you’d simulate sliding out of control down a snow face only to halt yourself by jarringly hammering in your axe. This was good fun, as often heavier or less-able people shot off uncontrollably through the barrier of human spotters.
We got to ice-climb a glacier, and in typical ABVIMAS style, it was a total free-for-all. People ran off with our gear, there was no organisation, equipment was faulty (namely a dodgily-repaired strap that resulted in my crampon visiting the bottom of a crevasse as I was halfway through the biggest climb of the day). It’s safe to say in moments like that you can only shake your head and love ABVIMAS for its unrivalled professionalism and safety precautions.
Undoubtedly, these days produced awesome experiences. Being woken by the ABVIMAS donkey as it perpetually tried to hide its boner in the ponies around camp only to realise you’re about to shit your sleeping bag. Jumping into freezing pre-dawn air and piss-bolting 100 metres over the crest to diarrhoea orange paste in your secret spot on Poo Ridge. Oddly enough, these are beautiful memories. As you squat ill of stomach, your excrement steaming in high altitude zephyrs, and the sun suddenly bursts forth through distant blue peaks. You’re flooded with warmth on your skin as the snow illuminates brilliant orange and a thrush swoops to rest on a lone tree. All the while, your bullocks are hanging out, naked to the mountains.
There is a certain charm to the workings of this mountain institution. Whether it be in the innocent lies that all classes will be held in English, only to then repeatedly hold two-hour lectures in Hindu. Or being marked wrong in a knots exam despite having correctly completed the task because you failed to follow an arbitrary instruction delivered in a language you knowingly couldn’t understand. Or when you’re tied into groups and told to race directionless through a hilly forest at dusk for no real purpose other than to produce twisted ankles and bloodied knees.
Despite these, and many other bafflings of the mind, ABVIMAS is a tremendous organisation. For one thing, it forces the development of a strong degree of patience, an attribute that gears you for the remainder of your life. But above all, the institute’s greatest achievement is that is enables anyone who has ever dreamed of standing atop a wild mountain to actively pursue that desire, no matter how incapable they may be in the beginning. To equip one with the tools to succeed – that is truly a wonderful notion.
And so it is that I focus back to my current setting. The MP has finally finished what can only be assumed is a notable speech, and student names are actually being called. It is only a matter of time before I’ve my badge in one hand, and in the other a certificate that reads a grade of “A”, not for my hard-earned efforts, but for simply being a “good man”, an Australian, and therefore, the one most likely to have friends willing to pay four times the normal price as well.
* Vajpayee, pronounced as “vag-payee” by the Australians, which I deduced could only insinuate a man that uses a hooker.